On Lk 4:1-13
“Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit through the wilderness, being tempted there by the devil for 40 days.”
Each year we begin our lenten fast with the account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus was hungry, as we are, or can become; he was tempted, as we are, but he did not sin. The scene as described by the Evangelists recalls another, from the very beginning of the Bible, when the devil tempted Adam. That temptation was successful, with the result that Adam and all his descendants were driven out of the garden, symbol of familiar friendship with God.
Now the second Adam meets the devil and is not defeated. In this way he chose to begin his mission, which St. John will later define as undoing the work of the devil (1 Jn 3:8). The three temptations of Jesus as described by SS. Matthew and Luke also fit well with St. John’s summary of all human sin under three heads: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (1 Jn 2:16). So today’s Gospel shows Jesus encountering in principle any temptation likely to assail any of us. In his humility he confronts the devil on our behalf, and defeats him without any use of his divine power. Instead he uses against the tempter weapons available to any of us: reference to God’s word in holy scripture, and steadfast obedience to his holy will.
In today’s Gospel the devil begins: If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to turn into a loaf. Jesus will hear very similar words at the end of his mission. If you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross (Mt 27:40; cf. Lk 23:35, 39). The temptation is real, because Jesus would indeed have the power to escape trouble by miraculous means. But it’s precisely because he’s the Son of God that he will refuse to do so. He humbled himself to assume our condition, in all things but sin: not for his own sake but for ours.
So he replies: Man does not live on bread alone. The reference in Deuteronomy is to the time when the people of Israel, lost in the wilderness, were fed by manna sent from heaven. God knows that we need food, and we look to Him to provide it. But we have a need that is deeper, more fundamental, even than our need for food. It’s our need for God. God made us: he holds us in existence; he is the goal towards which our life is set. To live in a right relationship with him -a relationship of trust and loving dependence – is an even greater blessing, an even greater gift than the blessing of food. And to lose that right relationship through our own fault must be a greater calamity even than loss of our physical life through starvation.
At present the community is listening to a refectory book about martyrs of the concentration camps. Often they gave away their own inadequate rations to others. Many of them could have saved their life by denying their faith, whether by word or deed. They refused to do that, and so in imitation of Jesus, and for love of him, they suffered the horrible consequences. We believe, we know that these people acted with true prudence. Without doubt they are now better off, and happier, than their tormentors. Please God no one here will ever be called to exercise such heroism. Nevertheless, our own little lenten fast is a way of showing symbolically, with those martyrs, where our priorities lie. By abstinence we show that we are not merely ruled by our appetites. By focussing on spiritual nourishment, especially though reading God’s Word, we show that this is what is truly most important in our life.
In the second temptation, the devil shows Jesus all the Kingdoms of this world. “Their power and glory has all been committed to me” he says, “and I give it to anyone I choose”. It’s a bleak view of the world of politics. Perhaps we sometimes feel inclined to agree with the devil’s analysis here, but we shouldn’t forget that he’s always a liar. It must be possible to hold political power and not be his willing slave.
Again, the temptation is real, in that Jesus must confront the possibility of a radical reversal of his mission. Yes, he could dominate the world by force and fear if he wanted. He could turn away from the humiliation, suffering and death that he knows are in store. He could give up the idea of raising us to the status of redeemed brothers and sisters. But to do any of that he would have to turn away from his Father, from Omnipotent Love, from the Holy Spirit who filled and drove him. And he would have to turn instead towards one who is bound in hell, filled with pride, hatred and malice.
We also can be tempted effectively to worship the devil in order to get what we want, or avoid what we fear. Sometimes the norms of morality become distinctly inconvenient. But if we abandon them, we are always ultimately the losers. In return for our homage, the devil gives nothing. It’s always as it was in the beginning: he offered Adam delightful looking fruit, but it turned out to be merely a sentence of death.
So in lent we deliberately do the opposite. With Jesus we worship the Lord alone and obey his will: even at cost of hardship and renunciation. We know that for such acts of homage he gives back everything: actually a hundred fold even in this life, and at the end the eternal life of heaven.
Finally, the devil quotes scripture at Jesus, to invite him to an act of presumption. He is right about the angels. They surround Jesus all the time: worshipping him as God and marvelling at him as man. 12 legions of them are on stand-by to rescue him from trouble at a word (Mt 26:53). The angels are always there to ensure that all things work together for the accomplishment of his mission. They will not desert him even in this passion; not in Gethsemani, not on the Cross. But they will not hinder his mission, and when it has been accomplished, they will be there to announce the joy of the resurrection.
The same applies to our own guardian angels. They are always present to direct our life along the path of God’s will and towards our heavenly goal. They defend us against the persuasions of the devil. They put us in the way of good example or inspiring teaching. They honour us as made in God’s image, and as destined to share the glory of Christ. If we are not ready for suffering or death, they will keep us even from physical harm. But if we are ready, then they will not obstruct God’s loving and saving plan. That doesn’t mean they simply stand aside at the hour of trial. On the contrary, they will lovingly accompany us through it, as they accompanied the concentration camp martyrs; as they accompanied Jesus in Gethsemani.
May they accompany us all through this lent, and be with us at Easter to communicate, in the depths of our hearts, the joy of the Resurrection.